News

Report: High-speed rail ridership data flawed

Institute of Transportation Studies report concludes that ridership estimates 'have significant problems that render the key demand-forecasting models unreliable for policy analysis'

California high-speed rail ridership studies are flawed and are "unreliable for policy analysis," according to an independent review released Wednesday by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

The report was commissioned by the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and has been eagerly anticipated by state legislators, local officials and critics of the controversial project, many of whom argued that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is basing its plans on faulty ridership models.

Its findings largely confirm the allegations voiced by critics such as Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), a Palo Alto-based watchdog group that has persistently criticized the rail authority's projections.

Under the current plans, the rail system would initially connect from San Francisco to Los Angeles and would later be expanded to Sacramento and San Diego. The rail authority had chosen the Pacheco Pass and the Peninsula as its preferred route for the new line despite arguments from a coalition of environmentalists and several Peninsula cities that the Altamont Pass in the East Bay would be a better alternative.

The new report identifies a series of technical errors and states that Cambridge Systematics, the company that performed the study for the rail authority, changed key parameter values "because the resulting estimates did not accord with the modelers' a priori expectations."

The report stated that the methodology used by Cambridge for adjusting its model parameters "has been shown to be incorrect for the type of model they employed."

"The parameters are therefore invalid and the forecasts based on them, in particular of high-speed-rail mode shares, are unreliable," the report states. A "mode" means the mode of travel one chooses: trains, planes or automobiles.

The Cambridge analysis also used a model that did not allow travelers to choose between high-speed rail stations, according to the report. This model, coupled with other dubious assumptions, "unrealistically favors alignments that avoid dividing services onto branch routes, such as Pacheco," the report states.

"Correcting this deficiency would almost certainly reduce, although probably not eliminate, the ridership difference between the Pacheco and Altamont alignments found in the CS study," the report states.

The ITS report also finds a key flaw in Cambridge's process for surveying California's riders. The mode choices of the individuals surveyed, the report said, "were not representative of California interregional travelers" because they were largely air travelers. But 90 percent of business travelers going more than 100 miles use cars, the report said. The resulting model "gives a distorted view of the tastes of the average California traveler."

The Berkeley study concluded that the combination of problems implies that the demand forecasts for high-speed rail have "very large error bounds."

"These bounds, which were not quantified by CS, may be large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may achieve healthy profits and the possibility that it may incur significant revenue shortfalls," the report states. "We believe that further work to both assess and reduce these bounds should be a high priority."

The new report was lauded by David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund and one of the leading advocates of the Altamout Pass alternative. Schonbrunn's group was part of the coalition that filed a lawsuit challenging the rail authority's selection of Pacheco Pass.

The rail authority's choice of Pacheco was ultimately reaffirmed by the Sacramento County Superior Court, but Schonbrunn filed a new petition in May asking the courts to revisit the route selection in light of the new revelations about the ridership projections.

"We hope this report, in conjunction with the recent reports from the State Auditor and Legislative Analyst, will prod the Legislature to consider replacing the High-Speed Rail Authority as manager of this enormous project," Schonbrunn said in a statement, referring to two other recent reports that were critical of the project.

The rail authority today released a letter defending the ridership projections. It stated that it believes the ridership model "has been, and continues to be a sound tool for use in high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis."

Authority CEO Roelof van Ark expressed special concern about the study's conclusion about the "large error bounds" in the authority's forecasts and its assertion that these bounds are "large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may include significant revenue shortfalls."

"This is an extraordinary statement for which we find no foundation in the Draft Report," van Ark wrote.

A copy of the full report is here.

Jay Thorwaldson contributed to this story.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Bikes2work
a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Jul 1, 2010 at 6:52 pm

If you build it, they will come.


Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2010 at 7:16 pm

No doubt they will. The question is "how many will come?" It could be the difference between boondoggle and success. I'd like to know which. Wouldn't you?


Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 1, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Suppose they come? What problems would be solved? If the HSR is powered by electricity, as is proposed, where does the electricity come from? What happens if the single HSR route is diabled by a storm or electic grid breakdown or terrorists? What about passenger security? How does a passenger get to his/her final destination without automobiles? What about cutting cities in half by "Berlin Walls"?

Can somebody please give a good argument that HSR, taken in total, makes either environmental, social, practical or economic sense?


Like this comment
Posted by NONIMBYS
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 1, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Where was your story last week when the lawsuit was thrown out???
I hear crickets...how about some real media skills here


Like this comment
Posted by NONIMBYS
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 1, 2010 at 8:24 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Like this comment
Posted by spokker
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2010 at 8:25 pm

"If the HSR is powered by electricity, as is proposed, where does the electricity come from?"

Mostly natural gas and hydroelectric sources, I suppose. I'd like to see more nuclear, solar and wind power in there too.

"What happens if the single HSR route is diabled by a storm or electic grid breakdown or terrorists?"

They fix it?

"What about passenger security?"

Depends on how safe security theater makes you feel. However, there is no reason for train riders to endure the same kind of security measures that air passengers do.

-There is no fuel on-board, which turns an otherwise fine aircraft into a bomb in the wrong hands.

-Trains are on a track. You can't direct your hijacked weapon to the target of your choice. This make a train an unattractive terrorist target.

Anarchists have thrown stone blocks in front of trains in France and some train stations have been blown up, but I wouldn't direct policy based on these rare events.

"How does a passenger get to his/her final destination without automobiles?"

Bus. Subway. Light rail. Bicycle. Feet.

If you meant personal automobile, then one can also rent a car, hail a taxi or ask a friend or family member to pick you up. I can see private shuttle services popping up in order to take people to the new stations.

"What about cutting cities in half by "Berlin Walls"?"

It's a comparison that might offend those impacted by the actual Berlin Wall.

"What problems would be solved?"

Depends on your point of view. Do you think California requires more intercity transportation capacity for the future? Do you feel that flying is well-equipped to deal with future capacity demand? Are you worried about oil consumption?

I don't really care about the environmental case for HSR that much, but I do think it'll help stimulate commerce.


Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm

California gets much of its electrcity from coal. Yes, COAL. You know that dirty stuff. It is produced on Indian reservations in the southwest, and imported to California. HSR is about new (marginal)electrical demands. There is no realistic possibility of additional hydroelectic supply. Nuclear has been stopped by anti-nuclear politics. Natural gas is limited by supply and distribution and cost issues. Solar and wind are like a pimple on a boulder. Bottom line: HSR, not to mention most the electric automobiles of the future, will be powered by coal.

HSR has zero redundancy. If a bridge is taken out, it will be weeks or months to get the system going again. Yes, they fix it, but if other systems, such as highways and airlines, have been reduced by the assumption that HSR will carry the day, then we are setting ourselves up to a precarious and irresponsible position.

Ask the people in London and Madrid about passenger security. HSR is a prime target for terrorist attack, especially if the HSR trains go through tunnels or over bridges or along canyon grades. It would be irresponsible to run such trains without airline-style security.

Most people will take a taxi or rent a car to get to their final destination, once they are dropped off in the middle of Los Anglees or San Francisco or San Jose. They will not walk or take a bus. Get real.

Ask the people in the cities that will be cut in half by HSR if they feel like Berlin or not. There are no guards with guns, but the city is divided by a wall that is much higher than the original thing. It will divide cities into zones with important cultural/class differences...ever hear of "the wrong side of the tracks"?

Intercity travel can be easily accomodated with more highway lanes and charter buses, as well as airline travel. What is the issue?

HSR doesn't pencil economically or logically or environmentally or socially. It also further deteriorates our state bond ratings. It is bad thinking and bad dreaming. We will all suffer from a turkey that was pushed by the labor unions and reflexive greenies.


Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm

"California gets much of its electrcity from coal."

No it doesn't. Most of it from natural gas and hydroelectric. Coal is a small percentage and it's being phased out anyway.

"It would be irresponsible to run such trains without airline-style security."

It would be irresponsible to run such trains with airline-style security. Plenty of experiments have shown that bomb materials have been snuck through heavy security and onto planes.

"Ask the people in London and Madrid about passenger security."

Do they put up with airline-style security on their trains? Even the international Eurostar train between the UK and France isn't as much of a hassle as airline security.

"If a bridge is taken out, it will be weeks or months to get the system going again."

A very real threat that we should base all of our decisions on. Very rational.

An earthquake disabled I-5 near Santa Clarita many, many years ago. Despite alternate routes, it still threw a wrench into daily commutes. Freeways aren't as flexible as you think they are.

"Most people will take a taxi or rent a car to get to their final destination, once they are dropped off in the middle of Los Anglees or San Francisco or San Jose. "

They are free to do that if they wish. How is that a knock against high speed rail? Many people fly and take taxis or rent a car.

"There are no guards with guns"

Thank you for clarifying!

"It will divide cities into zones with important cultural/class differences...ever hear of "the wrong side of the tracks"?"

These cities are already split by a very busy railroad. Do you also oppose freeways because they split cities into zones?

"Intercity travel can be easily accomodated with more highway lanes and charter buses, as well as airline travel. What is the issue?"

Marginal gains can be made in highway and airline investment. The real gains are to be made in rail, not just high speed rail, but urban and commuter rail as well.

"It also further deteriorates our state bond ratings."

Where are you going to get the money for those freeways?


Like this comment
Posted by NONIMBYS
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 2, 2010 at 9:01 am

Add lanes to 1-5!!!spoken like a true oil drinking Republican!!!


Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 2, 2010 at 10:02 am

As someone who has taken Caltrain to work for decades I can tell tell everyone the big secret about ridership projections; why they are not accurate and why you should not be upset by it.

The big secret is "It's the economy, Stupid" - Caltrain goes from standing room only to light ridership back to standing room only and now lower ridership. In 1999 at the height of the dot - com bubble it was standing room only. In 2002 you could always get a seat and the one next to you. In 2006 it was pretty crowded now it not so full.

It turns out that when people are working and have places to go they take the train (and cars, buses and planes). When they are out of work not so much. Remember 101 at rush hour during times of full employment?

This will also be true of HSR.


Like this comment
Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 2, 2010 at 10:11 am

""California gets much of its electrcity from coal." "No it doesn't. Most of it from natural gas and hydroelectric. Coal is a small percentage and it's being phased out anyway."

The first quote is correct. California is connected to the national grid. Since it is impossible to trace specific packets of energy back from their point of use to a specific source, the California electric supply mix reflects the national grid mix.

In March 2010 (Web Link), 47% of the US grid was energized by coal, 21% nuclear, 20% natural gas, 7% hydro, and 5% "other renewables." It's ironic that this 21-st century transportation marvel will derive almost half its power from coal, the same fuel that carried range cattle east from the old Chisolm Trail during the Wild West.






Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Actually, here: Web Link is the breakdown of our electricity sources in California. We only import about 27% of our electricity needs from the Pacific Northwest and southwest which does not have a big coal production (lots of hydro and natural gas). Even if you took the national 47% number, that would be 47% of 27% we import, which is only around 12%. So going by the national statistics is shifting the reality. Don't bend the facts An Engineer. Besides, having something run on electricity has the advantage of choosing the source of power generation.


Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 2, 2010 at 12:45 pm

"Add lanes to 1-5!!!spoken like a true oil drinking Republican!!!"

I am pretty sure that many Democrats use I-5, and drive cars using oil products.

I-5 was built with federal funds, and it can be expanded with federal funds, from the federal highway taxes paid at the pump. Highways will always have the advantage over rail, due to their redundancy in an emergency.

Oil is an amazing energy source, because of its energy density and portability. What else can you pour into a teacup and lift a ton a thousand feet high? If it didn't exist, it would have to be invented to drive the industrial revolution.

Nevertheless, we are slowly moving to an all-electric future, as the battery and grid technology improves. The question I am raising is what is going to generate the electrcity? Coal is the major producer. One way to think about it is to remove coal from the equation...all those states currently using electricity from coal would then start competing for California's hydroelectric and natural gas and nuclear. Nuclear has too big of a political hurdle to become more than the current 20% slice of the energy pie. Wind and solar are not capable, in their current configuration, of adding baseload power, because they are intermittent.

HSR and electric cars will be 'driven' by coal for the foreseeable future. There is no other way around it. Even if natural gas becomes a bigger part of the pie, it is still a fossil fuel, and produces CO2. Back to one of my original points: HSR is not an environmental fix.


Like this comment
Posted by le dude
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 2, 2010 at 12:59 pm

The Altamont route just seems to make much more sense. HSR could definitely help alleviate the horrific AM and PM traffic connecting the central valley and the bay area.


Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm

"HSR could definitely help alleviate the horrific AM and PM traffic connecting the central valley and the bay area."

Extending BART out that way would accomplish the same thing, as long as there is enough population density to support it. HSR, if used as a commuter train, as you suggest, would act to spread urban sprawl into the Central Valley. The greenies don't want that.


Like this comment
Posted by Person
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I noticed all of you pro-HSR people have convieniently forgotten about the article on this Palo Alto Online website on May 13th which stated and I quote:

"The Tuesday hearing focused on a recent report by the State Auditor's Office that identified a myriad of flaws in the California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the 800-mile rail line's initial phase between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Simitian said the audit, like previous reports from state agencies and watchdog groups, underscored to him that the complaints from the Peninsula are substantive issues, not isolated concerns. The audit concluded that the rail project has suffered from poor planning, inadequate risk assessment and a flawed business plan -- mistakes that could result in major delays, cost overruns or even an incomplete system."

So even if the electricity is not genereated by coal, HSR is still a project that should not be built,


Like this comment
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm

High Speed Rail should have been put in place 40 or 50 years ago. A boondoggle? Like the Erie Canal? the Trans-continental RR? the Interstate Highway System? Hoover Dam? Please get out of the way, foolish pettifoggers.


Like this comment
Posted by john burrows
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2010 at 12:14 am

According to the UC report, ridership on CAHSR could either be high or be low, and the project could either make money or lose money. This is about as accurate as any ridership study is going to get. There is no way you can predict with any accuracy how many people are going to ride a brand new, revolutionary, (for California) transportation system ten or twenty years in the future.

In England 180 years ago, the first trains,
a revolutionary new transportation system went into service. The first year of operation. ten times as many people rode the trains as was projected. Within 20 years,60 million people were taking the train annually. The English quickly realized that the train gave them choices about where they lived, where they worked, and how they traveled that they never dreamed would be possible.


High speed rail ridership in California will not be 10 times greater than projected, but like in England 180 years ago, it will give us many more choices about where we live, where we work, and how we travel, and my guess is that once high speed rail starts running, CAHSR will need to quickly order more bullet trains to meet the unexpected demand.


Like this comment
Posted by john burrows
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2010 at 12:24 am

A mistake in my previous comment. I should have said "first passenger trains"


Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2010 at 9:33 am

HSR makes Fresno and Modesto easily commutable to the jobs in San Jose, Peninsula SF and Sacramento. If there's a $200/month pass, it'll be a commuter train. If it's a $60 round trip, it won't. Same deal with Bakersfield and LA. HSR has the potential to be a transformational benefit for the Central Valley.

For the Peninsula the benefits are weaker. I visit Fresno once every 5 years. I 50-50 fly or drive to LA. I'd ride HSR to Tahoe but that route's not on the table. On the Peninsula the direct effects of HSR as proposed are elevated structures, more noise and worse Caltrain service. The main effects in the Central Valley are population growth and better access to jobs. HSR doesn’t solve my local problem that to reliably arrive in Marin at 7pm on a weeknight I need to leave my house at 4:30pm.

That's why it's completely reasonable for the Peninsula to (a) support HSR for the economic benefit of the Central Valley, (b) expect HSR to mitigate negative effects on the Peninsula and (c) demand transit and road upgrades so San Jose to San Rafael and Berkeley are as well-connected as Modesto and Fresno to Mountain View.


Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

HSR's ability to transform the Central Valley into commuter housing for the Bay Area and SoCal will wreak havoc with the state's water crisis. Has there been any meaningful analysis on HSR's impact on water?


Like this comment
Posted by BP No, not that BP
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I know this is slightly off the subject, but what will be the result of HSR on the expansion of Palo Alto HS and the Town and Country Shopping Center? It seems that these two important features would be mortally afflicted by the expansion of the rail without any benefit. Why not end the HSR at San Jose with its many connections to other transit serving areas?


Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 4, 2010 at 11:30 am

Central Valley housing could reduce total water use. Subdivisions use less water than cotton and rice.


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 6, 2010 at 6:09 am

PAHS and T&C are relatively safe. The expansion is slated to take out 2 lanes on Alma, not the land at either site.


Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Taking out 2 lanes of Alma isn't an acceptable alternative. There are only 3 lanes total crossing Embarcadero.

They are offering us, the city and residents of Palo Alto, a choice: take properties or severely impact traffic. Tough choice. I believe the City has told them c) neither.

The CHSRA must become more realistic and more creative in the options they carry forward from the Alternatives Analysis to the EIR.


Like this comment
Posted by Caltrain rider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 7, 2010 at 11:16 am

Question for Crescent Park Dad. Where did you find that two lanes from Alma are to be taken out? The maps that were previously made public showed the expansion of the right of way going west into Southgate.


Like this comment
Posted by wary traveler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2010 at 1:38 pm

To Caltrain rider --

The info on the traffic lanes is in the Alternatives Analysis document at Web Link. Look on pages 101 and 104.

The first section is from the county/city line to south of Embarcadero, and summarizes the "disruption to communities" as "Loss of 1 traffic lane along Alma Street". The next section is from south of Embarcadero to south of Churchill: "Loss of 2 traffic lanes along
Alma Street".

The loss of lanes applies to the following vertical alignments: aerial viaduct, berm, at grade, trench and covered trench. It doesn't apply to tunnels.

I'll repeat here the comment I made in another thread: a little knowledge goes a long way in how you view this project. The more we know, the worse it looks.


Like this comment
Posted by Caltrain rider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2010 at 9:40 am

To wary traveler:
Thanks for the link. That is indeed very scary. It is outrageous how they are ramming this project through despite the severe consequences to our community. What a disaster.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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